How many times have you heard somebody tell you to shop local? It’s a popular phrase among small business owners, college students, and hipsters. In fact the whole shop local movement (if you can call it a movement) is so popular Obama even takes a moment to exploit it for publicity:
He’s done it again! Indie bookstore surprise supporter President Obama visited a local bookstore on Small Business Saturday, the second time he’s touted the shopping local day (and bookstores) in as many years.
This year Obama took his daughters Sasha and Malia to One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., near Washington. The trio spent about 20 minutes in the store browsing through books and quietly conversing with other shoppers.
Too bad One More Page Books didn’t get one of those multimillion dollar contracts the government is so quick to toss to donors who make large campaign contributions, but I digress.
Let’s consider local bookstores for a moment. I love bookstores (and libraries, although fewer and fewer libraries actually have books in them so they are falling more and more out of favor with me) and books but even I have to admit that shopping at local bookstores, unless they’re specialty stores, isn’t an ideal experience. What is more convenient between driving to a bookstore to pickup a title or tapping a few buttons on your e-reader screen and having the book appear almost instantly on the device? For me it’s the latter by a wide margin.
Apparently I’m not along in thinking this because e-books are outselling physical books on Amazon. This brings up an economic reality being denied by those in the shop local movement; markets evolve. Just as the lightbulb ousted the lantern, automobiles ousted the horse and buggy, and computers ousted the typewriter e-books are ousting physical books. Nobody should be surprised by this as e-books are far more convenient than their physical brethren. I can have an e-book downloaded almost instantly to my e-reader, view my e-books on any number of electronic devices, carry every e-book I own with me at all times, and avoid setting aside space for more books. E-books are an evolution that bypasses many shortcomings of physical books. Of course e-books aren’t the only game in town and it’s unlikely they ever will be. Let’s consider the physical book market that, I believe, will always exist as a niche (some people prefer physical books just as some people prefer typewriters).
Technological progress has caused a great deal of trouble for local stores that have failed to evolve. Local stores are no longer competing solely with other local stores. Today everybody is competing with the entire world thanks to the Internet. The biggest competitor to local bookstores is are online bookstores such as Amazon. For those times I find myself buying physical books (usually because the e-book version is either nonexistent or more expensive than the physical version) I go to Amazon. Amazon offers a far better shopping experience than any local bookstore I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a lot of them). Many of the titles I read are relatively unknown outside of certain circles. These are books that most bookstores rarely stock. The reason large book sellers like Barnes and Nobel became so popular, and coincidentally put many independent bookstores out of business, is because they stocked a huge number of books. Stores like Barnes and Nobel were a market evolution that people like myself, who were often looking for oddball literature, greatly enjoyed. Now Amazon is the new market evolution that stocks even more books than Barnes and Nobel and saves me the trouble of driving to a store.
I was recently looking for some titles on the history of the Middle East. Since most Americans care little for history outside of events that have occurred in America or Europe finding titles on the history of the Middle East at local bookstores is an exercise in futility. My options were to order the book at a local bookstore or order it on Amazon. Had I chosen the former option I’d have had to drive to the local bookstore, find a staffer, tell them what I wanted, wait for them to find it and order it, drive home, wait for the book to arrive (which could take days or weeks), drive back to the local bookstore, and pay for the book plus any local taxes. I chose the latter which only involved me finding the book on Amazon, selecting a seller (I was buying a used copy because it was dirt cheap), and paying for the book (a whopping $0.01) plus shipping (a whopping $3.99 since it wasn’t fulfilled by Amazon and therefore ineligible for free Prime shipping). Shopping on Amazon took me far less time, didn’t require any gas (that’s worth a few greeny points), and allowed me to pass on paying taxes. It was win-win. This is what local bookstores have to compete against and they generally do a very poor job of it.
I mentioned that specialty bookstores can still offer a good experience. This is because specialty bookstores stand to fill niches in the market that generally go unfulfilled by larger market actors. Mayday Books is one such specialty bookstore that caters to people who generally lean towards the socialist side of the political spectrum. Most large bookstores aren’t going to carry a great deal of socialist literature nor will their staff have much knowledge about socialist literature. A store like Mayday Books stands to offer socialist literature that is hard to find elsewhere and the knowledge of staffers that know a great deal about socialism and socialist literature. On top of that the consumers Mayday Books caters to are more apt to buy from a store like Mayday. Mayday not only specializes in socialist literature it also proudly doesn’t make a profit. Although the staff of Mayday may not want to hear it their store is a perfect example of market specialization.
The shop local movement fails to address the fact that markets are constantly evolving. Because of the Internet the entire world is now local. In fact online stores like Amazon are closer to me than any so-called local store. Amazon literally exists in my living room and on my phone. I don’t even need to put on pants to shop at Amazon (that’s convenience)! Instead of telling people to shop local members of the shop local movement should be telling local businesses to evolve. Tell local business to setup a website for customers all around the world to shop on. Point them towards an unfulfilled niche in their market so they can fill it. Encourage them to innovate. Stop telling consumers to inconvenience themselves for the sake of local businesses. Businesses are supposed to serve consumers and therefore should be expected to improve their goods and services to better meet consumer demands.